United Nations: Fit Through Democracy

Is democracy important? Is it needed for development? Is it different for developed and developing countries? And most important, who is fit for democracy?

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Report (HDR) released on July 24, 2002, democracy is neither a luxury nor a panacea for developing countries. It is intrinsic to the process of human development and the freedom and choice that allows an individual or a group dignity and fulfillment within any society.

Titled 'Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World', the Report warns that the links between democratic practices, institutions and social and economic progress are not automatic. For example, inequalities rose after the transition to democracy in the former Soviet Union, and persist in most democracies such as Brazil.

"Around the world, there is a growing sense that democracy has not delivered development such as more jobs, schools and health care for ordinary people," says Sakiko Fukud-Parr, chief author of the Report. She goes on to say that politicians often use this to justify authoritarianism and curtailment of human rights, but history and academic research provide no evidence that authoritarian regimes are better at promoting economic and social progress.

According to the Report, the world is more democratic than ever before. For example: 140 of the world's nearly 200 countries now hold multi-party elections. But, in practice, only 82, with 57 per cent of the world's people, are fully democratic in guaranteeing human rights, with institutions such as a free press and an independent judiciary. And, 106 countries still limit important civil and political freedoms.

What can be done? According to the HDR, there should be a new emphasis on 'deepening democracy' at the local, national and international level. This would mean not only strengthening democratic institutions -- such as free and fair elections and a representative legislature -- but also broad-based political parties, an independent judiciary, an ethical and professional media free of both State and corporate control, and a vibrant civil society.

At the international level, the Report calls for deepening democratic practices in international institutions where power is concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest countries. For example, nearly half of the voting power in the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is 
in the hands of seven countries. And, while all countries have a vote in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), in practice decisions are taken in small group meetings and heavily influenced by Canada, the European Union, Japan and the US. They are also male dominated -- the IMF Board of  Directors is 100 per cent male, while the World Bank Board is 92 per cent male.

The Report suggests that the UN Security Council veto could be eliminated, reforming the selection process of heads of the IMF and the World Bank (currently controlled by Europe and the USA respectively), and also suggests new programs to help the poorest countries better represent their interests at the WTO.

While the Report sees democratic institutions as crucial to advancing development in the 21st century, it stresses that countries will need to promote 'democratic politics' by supporting the new wave of civic involvement and popular participation that is sweeping the world. It points out how in two of India's poorer states, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, greater community participation in planning and local education since 1991 has helped to raise the local literacy rate by 20 percentage points. In Porto Allegre, Brazil, direct citizen involvement in preparing municipal budgets has nearly doubled the number of people with access to sanitation since 1989.

Globally, the Report says that civil society action -- on everything from reducing poor country debt to accessing essential medicines under the TRIPS intellectual property agreement -- have pointed at ways to reach more collaborative solutions to global problems in an interdependent world. Another instance is the campaign of over 1,000 civil society organizations (CSOs) to establish an International Criminal Court (ICC). It took just four years for the 1998 ICC Treaty to be ratified by more than 60 countries and come into force: a milestone some thought would take decades to achieve.

In an against-the-grain opinion, the Report suggests that rather than being threatened by global activism, the international community should see it as an opportunity to inject new energy and popular legitimacy into global decision-making. The Report mentions the World Commission on Dams that brought together governments, financial institutions, displaced people, engineering firms, non-governmental organizations, and other stakeholders into defining guidelines and good practices. It cites another example -- the United Nations' new Global Compact on Corporate Social Responsibility that brings global corporations together to re-examine their commitments to upholding basic public values. Notions of democracy have changed over time.

"In earlier times there were lengthy discussions on whether one country or another was yet 'fit for democracy'. That changed only recently, with the recognition that the question was itself wrong-headed: a country does not have to become fit for democracy. Rather it has to become fit through 
democracy. This is a truly momentous change," says Nobel Laureate Dr. Amartya Sen.

The HDR 2002 report is a rich source of information, analysis and statistics on the state of the world's development. An independent publication of the UNDP, it is the twelfth HDR and argues that development is ultimately a process of enlarging people's choices, not just raising national incomes. It updates the UN Millennium Development Goals and focuses on democracy, its main theme this year, from a viewpoint of governance, democratic deficits, security and peace.

The Human Development Report is best known for its ranking of countries known as Human Development Index (HDI). This year the HDR also offers a ranking based on subjective indicators of governance: a polity score, civil liberties, political rights, press freedom, voice and accountability, 
political stability and lack of violence, law and order, rule of law, government effectiveness, corruption perception index, and graft. On this scale, Norway ranks highest followed by Sweden, Canada, Belgium and Australia. At the bottom end, rank 173, is Sierra Leone. India is ranked at 124, China at 96 and Brazil at 73.

The Report is timely, given that many parts of the world are experiencing and suffering from conflict, witnessed in events such as the destruction of the World Trade Centre, the war in Afghanistan, separatist movements and major inequities all over the world. Often the response of governments and 
the world community is to move away from democracy and democratic principles. But this is not the solution, according to the Report.

"Obstacles to democracy have little to do with culture or religion, and much more to do with the desire of those in power to maintain their position at any cost. This is neither a new phenomenon, nor one confined to any particular part of the world. People of all cultures value their freedom of choice, and feel the need to have a say in decisions affecting their life," says Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations.


More by :  Anita Anand

Top | Opinion

Views: 3323      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.